Over the next few days, I’ll be posting an interview with Alan McClure, founder of Patric Chocolate. Alan has been working since 2005 to make a chocolate comparable to what he experienced in France. After years of experimentation and research, he now has a plant that can produce fine chocolate from cacao beans. He’s also done the needed legwork to start sourcing cacao directly. It’s impressive to see how much he’s done in this short amount of time!
I’ve asked Alan to comment on chocolate making technique, cacao sourcing, and where the new micro-producers fit into the chocolate market. He’s taken the time to produce answers that really illuminate the technique and artistry needed to make fine chocolate. There’s so much information here that I’ll be splitting the questions over a series of three posts.
The interview is long, but worth the time to read. Alan has designed his own process for building chocolate, which includes a painstaking manual selection and roasting optimization process. He also has some interesting views on sourcing cacao and how the organic factor plays in the micro-producer space.
He’ll be releasing his first bars in his home-base of Columbia, Missouri this spring, with an expanded, nationally-available product-line to follow in Fall 2007, and I look forward to tasting the fruits of his labor.
In this first installment, we’ll focus on his techniques for making chocolate. In future sections, we’ll discuss cacao sourcing and the chocolate market in general.
Photo Credit: L.G. Patterson/Inside Columbia Magazine
What is your ideal chocolate for texture? What about for flavor?
My ideal for chocolate texture is somewhere between Domori and Amedei. I actually find Steve Devries’s chocolate to be pretty amazing texturally. In addition to the level of particle refinement in his chocolate, since he has also not added extra cocoa butter there isn’t that waxy quality that finds its way into even some of the high-end bars. I can’t stand biting into a bar of chocolate-flavored wax. I don’t reject additional cocoa-butter outright, but I think that it must be used with discretion, and generally only has a place in lower-than-70% cacao percentage bars which I am already not as fond of as bars between the 70 and 75% range. However, there are exceptions to almost every rule, and I am working on a small-batch cocoa butter press that will be done this coming month. I would never add commercially pressed cocoa butter to anything that I produce due to negative quality and flavor concerns.
For me, the ideal flavor of chocolate is one that is complex, balanced, interesting, dense in flavor, and above all, pleasurable. I don’t care how interesting a chocolate bar is, if it doesn’t cause me some gustatory pleasure, then it is not for me. Above all, chocolate is for the pleasure of eating. That does not mean that a chocolate bar has to be “easy.” There are plenty of delicious foods and drinks that take some getting used to and some work to appreciate them, but at the end of the day, these items still have a pleasurable flavor.
You are making two-ingredient chocolate, and have spent a huge amount of time working on bean selection. Are you working with any specific type of sugar?
Currently I’m working with pure cane sugar, and all of my bars that make it to market first will be made with this type of sugar only. Because I have an affinity for experimenting, I will be working with other non-reducing and some reducing sugars in the future, though there is no telling if any of what I find out will lead to a marketable product. I draw much inspiration from the philosophy of people like Ferran Adria at El Bulli as much as I do from great chocolatiers/chocolate-makers, and though I am primarily pulled in the direction of chocolate “purity,” I do not want to pigeon-hole myself regarding future chocolate creation.
What is your philosophy on roast and conch temperatures? How are you balancing getting rid of the raw flavor and acetic acid note with not driving off flavor notes? Are you conching in a melangeur or other type of equipment?
I treat each type of cacao as an individual with its own personality and beauty; that is necessary to truly understand it and get the very best out of it. With each type of cacao I run many test-batches to gain a better handle on how the cacao responds to certain roasting temperatures and times as well as conching times and temperatures. I taste each of these batches and take notes as they come out of the conche, then again after a week, two weeks, etc. Finally, when I have many tests done, I do comparison tasting. This amount of testing and tasting gives me a very clear idea of where I want to go with a particular type of cacao, and once I know, I move in that direction, further refining my processes. I base everything on my own preferences for taste, aroma, and mouthfeel, not on trying to be different for the sake of difference.
On the other hand, I also don’t attempt to mimic the style or technique of other companies. My preferences are already different than those of others, so that, combined with using different machinery, is all the difference I need. I am focused on making chocolate that I can fall in love with. That is my goal.
As for specifics, I am conching in a custom-made machine that in a basic sense is like a melangeur, but in other ways is quite different, as speed, friction, and heat can all be tightly controlled with my machine. The idea to move in that direction came to me after experimenting a lot with small indian-made granite grinders that are usually used for making the batter for Indian rice idlis, a kind of steamed bread.
To bring everything together–method and machine–after better understanding the nature of the cacao, I roast just enough to remove/reduce raw/acrid qualities and non-palatable volatiles and then I refine and conche in the carefully controlled environment of my custom machine. Through the various controls employed I can remove more volatiles such as acetic acid, but I also am very careful not to push beyond what is necessary so that I can maintain a large enough portion of interesting volatiles which may be winey, fruity, floral or roasted in nature. It is certainly a balancing act.
What has been the hardest technical problem for you to solve as a small producer? How much of your equipment did you have to build as oppose to sourcing from a manufacturer?
The hardest technical problem is growing strong relationships with farmers that lead to a consistent supply of high-quality cacao. However, I have also had machinery issues. Due to the fact that smaller chocolatiers—as opposed to chocolate-makers—have not ceased to exist since the advent of large-scale manufacturing, there are smaller tempering machines being produced, and it is just a matter of finding a model that one likes from one of several companies in the US and Europe.
However, regarding processing of the cacao from cleaning and roasting, to winnowing and refining, and then conching, it can be a difficult game. I hand-sort and clean my cacao which is a solution to two problems:
1) How to clean the cacao
2) How to make sure that only the very best beans make it into the chocolate
Machines can sort and clean, but they don’t have sensitive enough controls that rival the human eye for seeing things like germinated beans or beans with other minor flaws that may impact flavor. There is no replacement for human labor in this step, and so I sort and clean by hand.
As for the other machinery, there are three options:
1) Track down vintage machinery
2) Use machinery that will serve the purpose of cacao-specific machinery, but that was not specifically designed for it
3) Build your own
I use a combination of 2 and 3. The fact that a machine is vintage means nothing to me in and of itself though there is certainly something romantic about such machines. For me, though, the whole point is that a machine must perform a certain function. So, since vintage machinery is often far too expensive or in horrible disrepair, I took the option of focusing on the process and forgetting about being a romantic. Thus I have a great deal of custom machinery. Not cheap, but still less expensive and in better condition that vintage items.
You’ve described your hand sorting and cleaning process. What is the general outline of the process you follow from there? Do you have custom equipment for cracking and winnowing? Are you refining and conching in the same machine, or do you have separate machines?
After hand-sorting and cleaning, I then carefully roast small batches of cacao paying close attention to air temperature, time of roast, and roasting temperature curve and final temperature of the cacao, as all of these issues can have quite noticeable impacts on the final flavor of the chocolate.
Then I use a custom-made cracking, classifying and winnowing set-up to separate the shell from the nib. During this process I also remove nearly 100% of the germ or radicle of the cacao, as it is bitter and hard, and in my view, serves no positive purpose in being included in the final product. At this point, the nib is off to the refining room.
As for refining and conching, I do use the same custom machine for both processes, as it is fully capable of them, though of course very different settings must be employed. Additionally, I am also very much a proponent of putting sugar and cacao in close proximity to each other for as long as is prudent, as there are certainly interactions between organic compounds in cacao and sugar during such processes that can lead to positive flavor changes; this is especially the case in a heated environment heavy in various organic acids. For this reason, I see separate sugar-refining mills as a step backward to the production of fine chocolate, and also would not advocate per se chocolate-making processes that seek to reduce refining and conching time of the chocolate to a bare minimum. This being the case, I am not opposed to using scientific understanding of organic compound interactions in chocolate to alter chocolate-manufacturing machinery in ways that result in more flavorful chocolate in shorter times, but it seems to me that this is the opposite direction from the one taken by machinery manufacturers over the past 100 years, i.e., the focus has been more on speed and cost-cutting than flavor. Of course there will be disagreements over this issue depending upon the person to whom you are talking. However, I believe that most of the new micro-processors in the US will be in general agreement on this point. I do hasten to add, though, that there is certainly no one way to make chocolate, and if there was, then the chocolate-world would be a very boring one indeed. Every maker of chocolate must find what works best for her, and what meshes best with her underlying philosophy and the resources at hand.
Do you have a background in engineering? How difficult was it to build your custom machinery?
Actually I do not have a background in engineering at all. However, my brother is an electrical engineer who quite enjoys devising solutions to technical problems, and so together we have designed and built much of the custom machinery ourselves, though I readily admit that I have based some of my designs on the observations and experience of others. Also, my refiner/conche was not built in-house, though my comments and feedback led to its development.
How difficult was it? Well, I would say that in the scheme of things, building machinery was not the most difficult thing I have ever done, but there was a lot of trial and error, and it was very time consuming. Honestly, there were moments where I dreamed of greater funding that would have allowed me to buy and have refurbished a very nice little winnower, but such is life. At the end of the day, I am finally quite happy with my setup, and the great amount of time and effort that it took, though quite draining during the process, is slowly being forgotten.